Personal earthquake

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, APR 8, 2003

I’m in love with a man who was abused by a priest.


Dear Cary,

I am a relatively successful American gay man in my late 30s who has recently begun to live and work in Brussels, Belgium. I love my life here and I am quite excited by the work I do. I worked very hard to get here, and in many ways, being here is the culmination of many things for me — personal, vocational, educational, political, etc. I am also in a nine-year relationship with a lovely, lovely man whom I love very much. However, he has had a bit of a personal earthquake recently and I am in need of some guidance.

My partner was abused by a Catholic priest when he was a teenager. He recently decided to pursue some legal remedy, which required that he spend six months in the United States. During this time, he joined a very large and supportive group that held him up when it seemed like he might sink. Ultimately, he won the legal remedy, and we are now together in Europe. However, this priest “stuff” unearthed a world within him that is still a bit ugly and very deep and requires lots of personal work on his part. And he is utterly without the support network that provided him with so much sustenance during the trauma. In other words, there is nobody but me.

Since I was not with him in the U.S. during this time, I’m still not sure that I fully understand the earthquake he went through. But I do know that he has been having trouble since coming here. He has been relatively unsuccessful at finding ways to work on the priest stuff while in Brussels. Although I am a very loving and supportive partner (and he would definitely agree), I simply am not the therapeutic type and I do not have the skills to do much more than love him and try my best to give him what he needs right now. But it seems that my best might not be enough under these circumstances.

Some of his friends who were part of the support group don’t think Brussels is a very good place for him to be right now. They honestly think that he should be back with his community in the U.S. so that he has a lot of support to work on his stuff. There have even been calls for me to move back too, to help and support him. It seems that for him, there is a choice between being with me here and getting over this major shit.

Then there is my side of this — the dream-come-true stuff that I mentioned in the first paragraph. Plus, there is my fundamental problem with the state of the U.S. right now. I think that I would shrivel up and die if I were to return to the country that seems to provide the antithesis of the things that I find important in life — things that are such fundamental, sane values here in Europe. My partner recognizes this too, and feels the same way about being here. But some of his emotional needs are just not being met.

I do not want to set up a dichotomy of choices such as 1) stay in Europe and risk my partner’s emotional health and be the selfish careerist and 2) go to the U.S. where the partner has emotional health but I shrivel up personally and derail the train that has brought me (us) to what I thought was our desired destination. There is definitely something in the middle of those two choices that I am having a difficult time locating. Thoughts? Thanks.

Don’t Want to Derail

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Dear Don’t Want to Derail,

Thank you for your thoughtful and moving letter. I was told by someone recently that the real value of this column isn’t so much my advice as the letters themselves, such clear, honest and concise expositions of the human condition.

I agree with you that the solution lies in some middle path, but my proposal may sound a bit ambitious: If there is not a large abuse-survivor network in Brussels, I think your lover should stay there with you and devote himself to building one. And I think you should help him.

I don’t know if you are aware of how A.A. began, but it began with a man’s discovery that if he sought out fellow sufferers and attempted to help them, he got better himself. I don’t see why the same human principle wouldn’t work with the trauma of priest sexual abuse. In fact, I suspect something along the lines of mutual support by fellow sufferers has worked well in the U.S., which is probably why your mate misses it so much. But rather than lament its absence, why not build a group in Brussels? This is a marvelous opportunity to give the world something enduring and useful. And it is a way for you, who feels understandably at a loss, to offer invaluable aid: Your practical skills and knowledge of the area can help him. If you are successful, thousands will be indebted to both of you as the magnitude of this monstrous crime continues to unfold.

To your mate, I would say there is nothing more healing than making oneself useful to others. And there is nothing more useful to others than the hope, strength and wisdom of a fellow survivor. Besides, the American spirit says, if you can’t find it in stores, make it yourself.

And there is the geopolitical angle: While America’s recent course of action in Iraq has strained relations with Europe, this is a chance to do your small part to bring Europe something of America’s true genius, which lies not in diplomacy but in its unselfconscious and practical solutions to the moral and spiritual vexations of our time. For all its silly slogans, its encounter-group tribalism and Wal-Mart confessionals, the self-help movement is still a gift to the world as profoundly helpful as Vienna’s gift of psychoanalysis. Rather than lament that because of their private, dignified nature Europeans have not seen fit to provide expatriate Americans with the therapeutic gatherings they crave, it seems to me it’s the job of you expatriates to bring such American inventions to Europe. It would never occur to Europeans. But some version of it, adapted to European sensibilities, might well help thousands of your partner’s fellow European victims of priest sexual abuse. And in helping them, of course, he will be healing himself.